We first meet our narrator Rose as she is arrested in the 1990’s while studying at university. She’s met a fellow student called Harlow who announces her appearance on the scene with a whirlwind explosion of noise and anarchy. Dragging Rose into her escapades, she seems to neatly fit a hole in Rose’s life left by long disappeared sister, Fern.
Rose and Fern were brought up by their parents as a sort of home experiment by their psychologist father, and the repercussions of that experimentation have dogged Rose ever since. Inseparable as young children in the 1970’s, they are cruelly torn apart when Fern is sent away from the family and Rose has to learn how to live by herself. If that wasn’t hard enough, her older brother, Lowell, then releases their father’s research rats, disappears and is soon wanted by the FBI for setting lab animals free across America.
Much has been made about the twist in the book, and as loathe as I am to talk about a twist in the context of a recommendation, this book has a good one. But more than that, the whole book does not rely on it, instead using the revelation as a jumping-off point with which to delve into slightly different territory.
The book neatly jumps between drunken bumbling in bars with a ventriloquist’s dummy to thoughtful meanderings about the nature of guilt and the power that parents have over their children as well as the power humans have over nature. Lowell’s forays with the Animal Liberation Front reveal the ugly chasm between animals and their responsibility-abusing human masters, while Rose’s conflicted memories of her past give the novel an interesting framework to hang the novel on. It’s often very amusing, particularly the hyperactive chattering of Rose as a child, and the similarly kinetic adventures of her and Harlow as they navigate the myriad corridors of university life. It’s a light and enjoyable read with a thoughtful edge that will probably fuel many a book club.